You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy™
Losing a friend.
Black Jack was a friend.
He was a 14 year old Black Lab. He lived a wonderful life full of long walks, duck hunts, tennis ball retrievals and baked hams stolen from the kitchen counter when nobody was looking.
If Labs are friendly, then Black Jack was the Dali Lama of Labradors.
He loved to lay at your feet, and have you pet his head.
“Look, he’s smiling,” I would often say as I scratched his anvil shaped noggin.
And in deed he would smile. His muzzle, now filled with white hair, would turn up at the edges, in a bona-fide K9 smile.
After a wonderful and blessed life, Black Jack passed away last night.
The phone rang at 2:30 am.
Whenever your phone rings at 2:30 am, it’s not good news.
I woke to my girlfriend sitting on the edge of the bed. It was dark, and my eyes were unable to focus, but I could hear her sobbing.
I could only hear one side of the conversation. Sometimes you only need a few words to know the truth.
Black Jack had been failing slowly for months. 14 is a long time for a big dog to live, and Black Jack was a big dog. He was 75 pounds, with a thick head and powerful shoulders. A few weeks ago, his vet told us his heart was strong but his back end was failing like a tire with a slow leak. Day after day, he would stand a little more wobblily, a little less securely.
Sunday afternoon, we took him to the animal hospital. He had become lethargic and refused to stand.
I placed a bowl of food in front of him that morning. He sniffed it, laying his head beside the bowl. He was drooling and uncomfortable.
I knew right then, something was wrong.
In his prime, Black Jack could eat an entire roast. Most dogs like food. But Black Jack worshipped food. Though cataracts filled his vision, and his mobility was questionable, he would always perk up for food. I could drop a piece of salami in another room, and like a four footed Inspector Clouseau, he’d soon be on top of it.
Glomp. Lick. Chomp.
Like a culinary hoodini, the food simply vanished.
Now you see it. Now you don’t.
And it was always followed by that pronounced Black Jack Smile.
Sunday morning, he was refusing food.
I carried him to the car, wrapping him in his favorite blanket. He was shivering, his nose icy cold.
I stayed with him while the hospital staff rolled a steel gurney into the parking lot.
We had five minutes together and I talked to him while petting his soft nose. He looked at me and I could tell he wanted to smile, but he didn’t have the energy.
I think he was a little scared. I also think talking to him made him feel more at peace.
We rolled him into the clinic. It was a very odd feeling. It felt very clinical, like something much bigger was happening. I’ve been to many vet visits with Black Jack. Except for him hiking his leg and pissing on the reception desk, it was all pretty routine.
But this was a little scary.
After a few tests, the vet came back into the room. She was very serious, very direct. You could tell that whatever she was going to say was not good.
She told us Black Jack was was failing. “He has a large mass in his stomach,” she said having read the scan. “He’s lethargic because it is probably bleeding, “she added.
She encouraged us to leave him over night at the clinic where we knew they could keep him hydrated and comfortable. We had intended to go back the next day and decide how to proceed medically.
The next day never came.
At just after 2 am, Black Jack went into cardiac arrest. The vets at the 24 hour animal hospital wanted to know if they should try to resuscitate him.
Girlfriend cried uncontrollably as the weight of the moment pressed upon her.
“Is he suffering?,” I heard her ask.
The vets confirmed he was, and in pain.
Through gasps and tears she told them to end his pain.
And with that, he was gone.
He had been failing for months, unable to run, to chase a ball, to even get up the steps on his own.
Now he was in a better place, perhaps that Golden Dog Park in the sky where fire hydrants are made of liverwurst and the water dishes filled with icy cold milk.
Black Jack lived a special life.
In his early days, he was a duck hunting, dive in the frozen lake, swim without fear, kind of dog.
He was raised from a puppy to be a duck retriever. He was trained to sit at the ready, not be afraid of gun shot blasts, nor hestitate to leap into a frigid marsh to retrieve a bird.
Black Jack was the best.
Other hunters asked for his puppies.
Duck Hunting Lineage is important, and Black Jack was a duck hunting rock star.
I met Black Jack toward the end of his life when long walks and laying in the sun were his favorite things. Oh and stealing bacon off your plate when you turned your head for a moment.
Black Jack was 75 pounds of happy go lucky muscle.
He had a head like a furry anvil, hard and fuzzy. He often used his skull like a battering ram to move furniture or scratch his ears on the metal heating grate.
Black Jack and I had a special routine. I would rub his entire mastodon sized head with a hard plastic pasta tool. He would push his face against the spikes, and rumble his approval.
“He’s such a dude,” Girlfriend often exclaimed.
If Black Jack was a dude, he’d be your frat brother, beer bonging at a party, and seeing who could burp louder in front of the co-eds.
And he’d smile that big furry smile every time.
Black Jack had the shoulders of a bull. He was like a line backer with fur.
His bark was subsonic, like a jet fighter breaking the sound barrier. When he barked inside, the house shook. When he barked outside, it sounded like a dump truck hitting a pot hole and losing its load.
Black Jack would never be confused with a perfume counter at Macy’s. He was aggressively odoriferous. After a particularly gravy rich meal, he could imitate the stench of a sewer plant on a hot stagnant day.
I think Black Jack enjoyed laying on the carpet and passing toxic fumes.
I’d watch his tail swish, and his colon open and close quickly. He’d smile that furry, gummy smile, knowing that he had vaporized the room.
“Open the door! Turn on the Fan,” we’d yell, waving our hands trying to shoo invisible mustard gas into the great outdoors.
Black Jack was tough like frozen beef jerky, and he was good natured. I never saw him snap or bite another dog or person. He was just too well mannered, too happy. Black Jack was a passivist with paws, more than happy to turn the other cheek and go sniff another section of sidewalk.
“Where are all the girl dogs at?,” he often thought with a furtive grin.
Thanks to his human momma, Black Jack was in tremendous shape, walking practically every single day.
“I’ve walked that dog thousands of miles,” she would tell me over and over. “Through heat and snow and rain. They walked together in the mountains and at the beach.
She taught Black Jack to race down the driveway and fetch the morning paper.
Can you imagine a small black bull charging the street to get the newspaper. He was spry and energized and agile and tough.
And later, in the winter of his life, his rear legs failing, his hips faltering, he’d still muscle through the pain, and walk with him human mom. It was slower, and he sometimes stumbled, but he walked and he walked. He sniffed every sniff, and pee’d on everything worth peeing on.
He was a retriever’s retriever. Singular in purpose and dedicated to his craft.
I was throwing tennis balls for him one day, and he was crashing into the local lake, grabbing the ball delicately with his teeth, as he’d been taught. Then he’d crash onto the shore and drop the ball at my feet.
He’d shake off a coat of wetness, and bark at the ball with a booming deep voice, that made the geese fly away.
It was a fun game that both of us relished. I’d throw the ball and he’d go get the ball. It was the perfect arrangement.
He was getting older and I could tell his faculties were less sharp. I sometimes had to get his attention, to remind him I was throwing the ball, so he could see it and then go get it.
So I got his attention and threw the ball about 20 feet off shore.
Like a running back with an iron head, he crashed into the water, paddling for the ball as he’d done a hundred times before. He grabbed it delicately, balancing the ball in his jaw, turning his snout toward the sky.
Then a strange, scary thing happened. He didn’t turn to shore. He didn’t come back to me. He simply kept swimming, forward, into the deepest part of the lake.
I screamed, “BLACK JACK!!”
Years of duck hunts and repeated shot gun blasts had deadened his hearing. His mental acuity was diminished and he was swimming away from me.
I watched him grow smaller in the expansive lake. Fear crept up my spine.
He was dark black, in a dark pond. The only thing that was clearly visible was the fluorescent green tennis ball held lightly, pronounced in his jaw, as if it was a prized duck.
I ran around the edge of the lake.
I yelled and yelled to get his attention, but he didn’t change course. He didn’t change pace. He simply motored forward across this 1/2 mile stretch of water.
Horrible thoughts went through my mind as I tried to get him to turn back.
Oh My God! I have killed my girlfriend’s dog, I kept thinking.
I looked at her, hands over her face, as she cried, watching her elderly dog, swim to the middle of the lake.
He is surely going to drown, I surmised.
I imagined him submerging, the green tennis ball disappearing under the surface, and then a few bubbles and nothing.
But a funny thing happened on the way to me killing my girlfriend’s fur baby.
That tough, anvil headed son of a bitch just kept swimming and swimming and swimming.
After 5 minutes, he was at the center of the lake. After 7 minutes, he was closing in on the other side of the pond. After 10 minutes, I was convinced that this smiling, gassy, food inhalation machine was definitely going to survive.
I ran to the other side of the lake.
He was only a few feet away, dog paddling, his head tilted up, air billowing in and out of his extended snout.
The ball was in his mouth, lightly caressed by his teeth. It was perfect form, just as he’d been taught as a puppy. Black Jack was old now, covered in white, but in his mind, he was still an expert duck hunter.
I watched as the lumbering Black Lab swam to the shore, eventually the water shallow enough for him to get his footing. He pranced out of the water, huffing and puffing.
He shook his thick black coat in a whirl wind of excess water.
He dropped the ball at my feet and began to woof at it.
A nearby squadron of geese were startled by his throaty sonic boom, flying into the sky.
Black Jack smiled, begging me to throw the saturated ball back into the lake.
The ten minute swim across a 1/2 mile of frigid water was a forgotten memory.
His demeanor was simple and pure: THROW ME THE BALL. THROW ME THE BALL.
“Crazy son of a bitch,” I commented as I pet his mastadon hard head.
And now he’s gone.
It’s only been 24 hours, but I miss him.
Somewhere in dog heaven he’s swimming in a refreshing lake, paddling forever. His head tilted back, his duck delicately poised in his smiling dog face.
Somewhere in Dog Heaven, I know that God is smiling too.